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Gérard Depardieu

Gérard Depardieu, an unlikely poster boy for French ambitions

There is no one more acutely aware of the damage done to his reputation in recent years than Gérard Depardieu himself. “When I travel the world”, he admitted to Léa Salamé in a recent interview for France Inter radio, “what people remember above all else is that I pissed in a plane, I’m Russian, and that I wrote a letter calling out the Prime Minister.” This of course is simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the star’s notoriety. His weight problems, his alcohol consumption, his tax exile status, and his predilection for dodgy business and political associates (Rafika Khalifa, Sepp Blatter, Ramzan Kadyrov to name but a few) have long been the subject of attack and cruel satire in the French and international media.

In the world of cinema his talent and professional judgement have increasingly been called into question, with the fortunes of two recent high profile projects exemplifying an apparently unstoppable career decline. Both Welcome to New York, in which he incarnated a fictionalised version of disgraced politician Dominique Strauss Kahn, and United Passions where he played the role of World Cup supremo Jules Rimet, failed to gain theatrical release in France, and went straight to video on demand. The timing of the release of the latter, which did not manage to cover even one percent of its production costs, could not have been worse as it was released in the USA a mere four days after Blatter was forced to resign the FIFA presidency amid corruption allegations. The film also has the dubious honour of grossing an American opening weekend all-time low of $607. The bulk of Welcome to New York’s attention took the form of appalled shock at the out-of-shape star’s nude body, and the film has recently been described as Abel Ferrara’s ‘embarrassingly amateurish career nadir’ by critic Adrian Martin in Sight & Sound. The film is a flawed but important one that has much to say about corruption, power and hypocrisy in French politics. But somehow, all the critics wanted to talk about was Depardieu’s aberrant physicality, and how pathetic the once great actor had become.

 Depardieu can go as far away as he likes, but he is not yet ready to be painted out of the picture of French life.

What seems to be particularly galling to French cultural commentators, however, is Depardieu’s refusal to play the game and shuffle off quietly into retirement and exile. He clearly has an inestimable capacity to weather the barrage of criticism about his decisions, body, and behaviour, and to reject the narratives of shame and humiliation the media seek to impose on him. Rather than keep his head down and hope for the storm to pass, Depardieu continues to work in France, give selective media interviews, and make public appearances. For example, when the organisers of the Nice Carnival announced the theme for 2014 would be a celebration of French gastronomy, Depardieu gamely participated in the opening ceremony, and cheerfully applauded the float depicting him as a greedy Russian princeling, sat on a Kremlin-style throne surrounded by folkloric ‘little people’ feeding him local delicacies. Entitled ‘Gargantua’s New Home’, the float featured a giant bulbous-nosed effigy of the actor, with a wineglass in one hand and a miniature Vladimir Putin serving him caviar from a silver spoon in the other. The star enjoyed the creation so much he autographed its arm, and spent the night drinking and spraying silly string onto his fellow revellers.

But as the sustained media coverage reveals, when a man of the stature and celebrity of Depardieu rejects his citizenship, and openly criticises the institutions and elite figures of French life, people have a tendency to pay attention whether they agree with his motivations or not. There has been a lot of soul searching on the back of Depardieu’s decision to take up Russian citizenship (granted by Vladimir Putin in January 2013). While many have rejoiced with a hearty ‘good riddance’, glad to see the back of a particularly loud, unpredictable, and over-privileged fool, many others see the loss of such a towering figure as symptomatic of France’s struggle with a loss of historic grandeur. In a country whose beleaguered president self-identifies as ‘Monsieur Normal’, and where the Culture Minister admits she has never read the French Nobel Prize winning author Patrick Modiano, where do the French look for reassurance, inspiration and leadership? Where does today’s public look for the ‘distinction’ – as Depardieu called it in a recent interview for Le Figaro – of politicians like de Gaulle, Mitterrand, or even Danton, famously incarnated by Depardieu in Wajda’s eponymous 1983 film.

For others, the loss of Depardieu to the French cinema industry seems to point to the end of a golden era of French talent and creativity, the great years of Gabin, Carmet, Noiret, Deneuve and their specific brand of distinction, now superseded by a host of identikit reality TV stars and coarse comedians. Depardieu’s presence and outspokenness testify, I would suggest, to a confidence, and an ambition absent from many areas of French life. His defiance sits comfortably in French traditions of contestation, while his ability to disrupt, to provoke and to galvanise (many below the line commentators express ‘go Gégé’/’voice of the people’ statements of support), reveal him as a curious barometer of current French thinking about Frenchness. Depardieu can go as far away as he likes, but he is not yet ready to be painted out of the picture of French life. For now at least, he is as deeply political a figure as any elected to public office in France.

Featured image credit: ‘Gérard Depardieu’ by Siebbi. CC-BY-3.0 via ipernity.

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